The 2013 Rand Technology Buying Guide for Real Estate Agents

As part of our Extreme Makeover: Technology in January, we discussed the technology that you need to use in your business. Coming out of the class, a number of agents asked me about my recommendations for what I consider the basics: your smartphone, laptop, etc.  So we’ve decided to put together the “2013 Rand Technology Buying Guide” that will give you some advice about the technology you need in your business to stay competitive in this year’s market.  We will periodically update this as new tools get released, or if circumstances change the advice that we’re giving.  In the meantime, we hope you find it helpful as a general guide to the basic technological tools you need in your business.  

We spend too much time in the real estate business talking about technology.  We treat it like it’s something special, like it’s mysterious and wondrous.  It’s not.  Technology is just a tool that we use in our business.  After all, at one point in our history, the fax machine was an amazing and unfathomable invention.  And the first cell phones completely changed the way we work.  Those technologies seem simple now, but only because we got used to them.  There was a time, you might remember, when people couldn’t figure out how to use those fax machines.

The technology gets more complicated, of course, as time goes on.  The internet. Social media. Smartphones. Computers. Tablets.  These technologies are incredibly useful, but the more advanced they become, the more effort it takes to keep up.  But the effort is worth it. Some of these technologies can make your life easier, not harder, by allowing you to do things more efficiently, cheaply, or quickly.  Those are the ones you need to know how to use.

At the same time, you can’t be seduced by technology into thinking that it can do your work for you. We’ve all seen agents sucked into the vortex of shiny new things, wasting all their time blogging and posting on Facebook rather than doing the actual work that goes into helping people buy and sell homes.  They think they’re getting something done, but at the end of the day they just played online.  They didn’t actually work.

The bottom line is simple: technology is a tool that you need to know how to use.  If you don’t know how to use it, you’re not doing the best job you could for your clients, and you’re not giving yourself the best chance to be a really successful agent.

So stop being intimidated by new technologies. Learn how to use them, not for their own sake, but so that you can figure out how they can help you do your job. 


Technology is a Tool

Your pen is a tool.  Your name badge is a tool.  Your car is a tool.  All these things you use in your business – they’re just tools.  So stop thinking about “technology” as if it’s anything more than just a set of tools that you need to use if you want to be a successful real estate agent.  You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who still used leeches, would you?  So why should a client work with an agent who doesn’t know how to use some basic “tools of the trade?”  Here’s a list of the fundamental tools that you need to be using in your business:

  • Smartphone
  • Mobile Hotspot
  • Laptop computer
  • Tablet
  • Camera

These tools are no longer luxuries.  They’re necessities in today’s business. And you can get yourself fully outfitted with all of these tools for under $1,000 in you buy smart.  If you want some buying advice, we have “Buying Guides” for each tool, which includes a lot of links that you might want to check out.


Smartphone Buying Guide

If you’re not using a smartphone that allows you to text message, get email, go online, and use “apps,” then you need to get one.  You can’t possibly be competitive otherwise.  Pretty much any smartphone you buy right now will come with the following features: email, internet capability, camera, video camera, music library access, and a whole range of productivity and entertainment apps.  Here are the main options:

Apple.  The iPhone is the most popular smartphone. It’s easy to use, provides a consistent interface, and has a huge market of apps and accessories. Moreover, the iPhone is very consumer friendly, because when you have problems you can just go to the local Apple Store to get it resolved.  The drawbacks: the iPhone is more expensive than most Android phones, and has limited customizability. You can’t, for example, replace the batter or plug in a lot of peripheral products.  But if you want something simple, elegant, and intuitive, and particularly if you’re already an Apple product user (i.e., you use a Mac), then the iPhone is right for you.  And to make it even easier, if you want an iPhone, you get an iPhone — Apple is the only company making iPhones, so the only choice you have is whether to get the most recent version (the iPhone 5) or one of the older models.

Android.  The Android operating system is used on a lot of phones, and provides you with a huge array of choices at different price points.  The platform is very good, more customizable than the Apple operating system.  But with that customizability comes complexity, which often makes the Android phones a little tougher to use than the iPhone.  (Moreover, it can be tough navigating through all the various types of phones that are out there to find the right one for you.)  Android phones are particularly good if you’re a heavy user of Google apps (like Google Docs), because Google makes Android and tightly integrates its products.  If you want to save a little money, want more options and customizability, you can get an Android phone. Of the Android phones currently available, the one we think has been getting the strongest reviews is the Samsung Galaxy S III. 

Microsoft Windows.  Microsoft opened a lot of eyes with its modern “tile-based” take on the smartphone interface, but sales of the Windows phones have generally been disappointing.  Because it’s from Microsoft, it should be better integrated with your PC applications, and it allows for a lot of customizability.  That said, though, it’s tough to get a phone that is so unpopular, because you won’t have a lot of friends or colleagues who have the same phone and can explain it to you – and there’s no “Windows Store” like the Apple Store.  We would only recommend the Windows phone to really committed PC users who are also getting a Surface tablet and want everything to be integrated.  If you need help picking which one to get, CNET published a good review of all the best models available as of mid-February.

Blackberry.  Blackberry lost huge marketshare when its phones fell behind the new smartphone models.  Now, Blackberry has come out with a new phone, the Z10, which has been generally well-reviewed as being better than the older Blackberry models but not quite at a level with the iPhone.  You’re not going to have the integration with other products (Apple, Android, or Windows), and you won’t get as big an app store.  And we don’t see an advantage for current Blackberry users, because the new operating system is so different that you’ll need to learn how to do things anew anyway.  The only real selling point for the Blackberry is for large enterprises that need better security, but that’s not really necessary for real estate. Bottom line: we recommend you go with something else. 

Bottom Line: Which Phone Should You Buy? Unless you really love Microsoft products, or are afraid to leave the comfort of the Blackberry system, you should get an iPhone or Android phone.  Those are the best and most popular operating systems. Which is better? It depends. If you like simplicity and elegance, go with the iPhone.  If you want a wider range of customizing options, get an Android.  And if you’re already locked into one or the other, don’t switch. Once you’ve bought into a particular operating system, and bought all the apps and music for that platform, it makes sense to stay there. The differences between the phones are not enough to justify learning a whole new system.

Money saving tip: If you’re looking to save money, buy “last year’s phone.”  Verizon offers the iPhone 4S, for example, for about $100 with a two-year contract.  If you go with the older models, you can get good deals on phones that get you about 90% of what the cutting-edge phones do.


Mobile Hotspot Buying Guide

Virtually every phone on the market now allows you to create a “mobile hotspot” that allows other devices to get onto the internet. You need that capability.  When you’re sitting in someone’s living room and want to show them your listings on your laptop or tablet, you don’t want to have to ask them the password for their wireless network.  And how impressive is it if you hand your tablet to your buyer when you’re driving around, and let them surf the internet to look at properties while you tour?  Most plans allow you to create a hotspot for $20-$30 a month.  It’s worth it.

You can also create your own mobile hotspot through a dedicated mobile router, but getting it through your phone is a much better way to do it.  After all, you always have your phone with you, which means that you’ll always have the ability to create that mobile hotspot.  The dedicated routers are nice, but it just means carrying something else around.  So make sure your phone can create a mobile hotspot. If not, you need a new phone. Better to spend a little to upgrade your phone than spend $50 on a separate device.

How much should it cost?  Generally, the plans run between $10 and $30 a month, depending on the carrier.  Most carriers allow for a range of pricing depending on how much data you plan on using every month.  But if you’re only really going to use the mobile hotspot for those few times when you don’t have a wireless network available, get the cheapest plan.  Just pop into your mobile phone carrier (i.e., the Verizon store, or whatever) or call customer service to ask about the plans available.

Most importantly, a mobile hotspot on your phone helps save you money on your other devices.  You don’t have to get a tablet or laptop that can access cellular 3G or 4G networks if you can set up a wireless data network right on your phone.  So for maybe $20 a month, you can save $100 or $200 on your tablet or laptop by purchasing the “wireless-only” models.


Laptop Buying Guide

Why a “laptop buying guide,” instead of a “computer buying guide”? Because if you’re buying a new computer, you should get a laptop.   The only advantages that desktops have are that they provide a bigger screen, and they are a little cheaper.  But you don’t really need a huge screen for the kind of work you do, and laptops are so cheap now that you don’t need to save money by getting some big desktop that will sit immobile in your office.  Laptops are just more versatile and easy to use.

Now, laptops come in too many shapes, sizes, and brands for us to give you a definitive buying guide.  Instead, here is a list of the features you absolutely must have for your new computer, and which you should be able to get for $500 or so:

  • Processor.  It doesn’t matter. It used to, but it doesn’t anymore, not for the kind of work you’re going to do.
  • Memory.  This does matter.  Your RAM is the amount of brainpower that your laptop is going to have.  You want four gigabytes of RAM unless you want to spend a lot of time staring at your computer waiting for it to finish something.  Don’t compromise on this.
  • Hard Drive Capacity.  This is not as important as it used to be, because you can store a lot of documents online.  But you generally want at least 500 gigabytes of storage, and more is better (and not much more expensive).
  •  Weight.  Buy something that is less than six pounds. Anything heavier than that becomes difficult to lug around.  But don’t pay extra for one of those two-pound laptops.  Unless that’s the only type you can carry, you don’t need to pay extra to shave off that extra weight.
  • Screen Size.  If it’s the only computer you’re going to use, then get a 15 or 17 inch screen.  If this is really just your travel computer, you can go as low as 13 inches.  Don’t go smaller.
  • DVD Drive.  You don’t need one, so don’t pay for one unless you really want it.  Programs now come through download, and you can move documents around through the cloud or through mini-USB drives.
  • Wireless Capability.  All laptops can get on the internet through wireless networks, but some have the ability to get on 3G or 4G networks (like your phone).  But you don’t need that capability if you’re already getting a mobile hotspot on your phone.
  • MAC or PC.  Macs they tend to hold their value better, remain usable for several years, and are easier to use.  Plus, when you have problems, you just go to the wonderful Apple Store.   The downside? They’re more expensive, and you can sometimes have compatibility problems when everyone else is using PC computers.  The advantage for PCs?  They’re cheaper, they’re more common, and more compatible with some of the MLS systems. 

Bottom Line: Which Laptop Should You Buy?  It’s impossible to recommend a particular laptop brand.  You can find some recent summary reviews of laptops from CNET,  Squidoo, and PC Magazine. With all that in mind, go out to a store and put your hands on a few models.  Yes, you can buy online, but it’s really helpful to actually hold the device in your hands, try out the keyboard, feel the weight.  Other than the Mac laptops (the more powerful Powerbooks and the lighter Airs), laptop makers are generally commodified — meaning that you really don’t choose on brand, you choose on which model works best for you.


Tablet Buying Guide

Tablets are becoming a necessity, not a luxury.  Enough agents are starting to use them that you’re at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t.  More importantly, they’re great tools for displaying your listings on seller presentations or showing properties to your buyers. You’ll find yourself using your tablet all the time, not just in your business but in your life. And they hold their value much more than laptops – a two year-old iPad is worth about 75% of what it cost when it was new.  Do you need one? Maybe.  If you don’t have a computer at all, you should make getting a laptop your priority.  But if you already have a computer or a laptop, go get a tablet.

Which Tablet Should You Buy?

If you’re going to buy a table, you basically have the same array of choices that you have for your smartphones:  Apple’s iPad, the Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the Google Nexus, or the new Windows Surface tablet. Just like with the smartphones, the differences among them are based on customizability, the size of the app store, and basic build elegance:

Apple iPad: The iPad is well-made, easy-to-use, and with the largest selection of tablet apps, but can be the most expensive. By far the most popular tablet with the largest installed base, the biggest app store, and the legendaary Apple customer service.  Some are calling the iPad’s operating system a little dated, the same complaint that we’re starting to see about the iPhone, because it still uses the “screen full of apps” basic interface rather than some of the more interesting and customizable design systems that you see in the Android and Windows tablets.  That said, we’ve never met anyone who has an iPad and doesn’t like it.  It’s a great device, and still the easiest and most intuitive to use.

Android: Android tablets are largely catching up with the iPad, particularly for customers who are locked into the Android operating system for their phones. The tablets are customizable, sometimes with the ability to add memory or plug in other devices, and can be a lot cheaper than the iPad. As with smartphones, though, going Android means navigating the array of tablets that are out there, but you can get some recent summary reviews at CNET, Digital Trends, and Lifehacker.  The recommendation we would make would be to go with the Google Nexus, which seems to pack the most punch for the money. The one Android tablet we wouldn’t recommend for your business is the Amazon Fire, which is great for reading and watching movies from Amazon Prime but has a limited selection of apps and isn’t ideally suited for business use.

Microsoft Surface: The Surface tablet hit the market in late 2012 as Microsoft’s first attempt to market hardware directly to consumers (other than through the Xbox).  The Surface is interesting because it uses a version of Windows that could allow you to run the same programs you would run on your PC — making it a potential laptop replacement.  But Microsoft always seems to find ways to make things complicated (the same way that Apple always makes things easy), so of course there are two versions of the Surface running two different versions of the operating system: the Surface RT and the Surface Pro. The Surface RT came out in the fall, retails for about $500, and has received okay reviews because it doesn’t quite run the Windows operating system and can’t really replace your laptop — leaving you with just a lesser version of the iPad. The Pro is the one that could be a laptop replacement, has gotten some really good reviews, and is now available.  But it’s very expensive (over $1,000), so it really does need to replace your laptop to justify its purchase.

Blackberry.  Blackberry has made something called the Playbook tablet, but it’s generally considered a disaster and it doesn’t seem that Blackberry is committed to refining it.  That’s actually a pretty good reason to evolve off the Blackberry platform, since ideally you want to learn one operating system (Apple iOS, Android, Windows) for both your smartphone and tablet.  If you go Blackberry with your phone, you’re still going to have to learn another system for your tablet needs.

How Big?  Within each category, you also need to decide how big a tablet you want. Most of them come in a 7-inch version and a larger version.  For example, you can get the Apple iPad or the 7-inch iPad mini, and the Nexus 10 or the Nexus 7.  The choice is up to you.  The bigger tablets are obviously better for daily use, but the mini-tablets are cheaper and give you the same experience – plus, they fit easier in handbags and sometimes even coat pockets.  Try them out in the store and see what you like.

Bottom Line: Which Tablet Should You Buy?  This one’s easy – buy the table that’s on the same operating system as your smartphone. If you have an iPhone, buy an iPad.  If you have an Android phone, get the Nexus 10 or the Nexus 7 from Google.  If you have a Windows phone, consider the new Microsoft Surface Pro tablet.  They’re all good tablets, they all do much of the same things, but the point is that if you’ve already learned one operating system and bought a bunch of apps and music for that platform, then stick with it for your tablet.  You’ll find that the operating systems are basically identical between the smartphone and the tablet, so you’re way ahead on your learning curve.

Money-saving tip.  If you’re getting the hotspot on your phone, you don’t need to spring for the 3G- or 4G-enabled tablets that can get on the internet through a “cellular” connection.  Just turn on your phone hotspot.  This can save you a lot of money.  Also, as with the smartphone, you can save a little money if you buy the older versions of the tablets, but in this case we would only buy the older iPad tablets – the older Android and Windows tablets are out-of-date.


Camera Buying Guide

In the modern era, real estate agents are professional photographers.  So you need a good digital camera, one that has a wide-angle lens, takes good low-light pictures, and can record high-definition video.  Now, if you bought a good camera in the last two or three years, it’s probably still good enough.  But if not, you need a new one.

Sadly, most agents are still using the point-and-shoot “pocket cameras” they got for $100 on special at Costco.    You won’t be able to do anything fancy, but you can take a decent picture. Not a great picture, but a decent one.  But here’s the problem — why do you need a camera you can fit in your pocket?  You already have a smartphone that can probably take pictures that are comparable to anything you can get from a pocket point-and-shoot.  And you take your phone with you everywhere.  So if you’re going to spend a few hundred dollars on a camera, why not stretch just a little bit to get a bigger, better camera that doesn’t fit in your pocket, but takes MUCH BETTER PICTURES!

Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen some dramatic advancements in cameras that are available for someone with a sub-$500 budget, including cameras with interchangeable lenses.  They don’t fit in your pocket, but they’re still pretty easy to use and, most importantly, take better pictures.  Moreover, they LOOK like the kind of camera that a professional real estate agents should be using.  You’re not going to impress your sellers walking around their house taking pictures with your phone, or with that cheap shirt-pocket Casio.  But if you walk in with an interchangeable lens camera, along with a tripod, you look like you’re a professional photographer.  Then you just set the camera to “auto” and take your photos!

(If you want to learn more about taking photos for real estate listings, check out the Photography for Real Estate blog, which has great tips and advice for taking photos.)

If you’re looking for a camera, we’ve set out some of the main specifications you should look for. If you’re not sure if your old camera has these specs, look through your manual or google your make and model number to find the manual online.

Image Size of 10 Megapixels or More.  You want to be able to take pictures that can be magnified on screen.  Most cameras today come with the ability to take much more than 10 megapixel shots, but you don’t really need much more than that if you’re just going to be using the photos in marketing materials or online display.  You only need larger photos for making canvass posters and things like that.

Wide-Angle Lens of 24mm or Lower.  You need a wide-angle lens so that you can comfortably fit an entire house or a full room in your pictures.  This is an absolute necessity for taking professional listing photos.  Most cameras do NOT come with wide-angle lenses, so you need to make sure you buy one that specifically does have this capability.

Sensor Size of At Lease 1/1.63”.  The bigger the sensor, the better the camera is in low-light situations.  Strangely, camera companies market their cameras by the size of the photos (i.e., 16 Megapixels!) rather than the size of the sensor, even though it’s the sensor that makes all the difference.  Don’t skimp on sensor size, because it’s the difference between ordinary and beautiful photos.  Most pocket cameras will have small sensors, so spend what you need to get the biggest one possible.

Optical Zoom. You don’t really need major zoom capabilities, but get a camera with an optical zoom, not a digital zoom.  Digital zoom is just a gimmick – it blows up the picture but reduces image quality.

HD Video.  You need to be able to take high-definition quality videos with your camera. You don’t want to have to get a designated video camera.  Most cameras these days come with this capability.

GPS Tagging. Many cameras these day come with GPS tagging, which keeps track of where the photo was taken.  This can be helpful for real estate agents, because you can separate your photos by location.

Tripod Receptacle. Make sure your camera comes with a tripod receptacle in the bottom, so you can use a tripod when you take pictures.  Most cameras come with this.

Bottom Line: Which Camera Should You Buy?  Buying a camera is like buying a laptop: lots of choices, and difficult to tell the brands apart.  Realtor Magazine had a nice spread on digital photography that included recommendations for individual cameras, but the reviews are dated March 2012 so they’re a little out of date.  You can find some other guidance here and here.

Basically, you should be prepared to spend about $300 to $400 to buy a decent point-and-shoot camera for your business, and a little more if you want to go with an entry-level camera with an interchangeable lens. pane At that level, you can buy the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20, which has a wide-angle lens and a large 1/2.33” sensor and retails for about $250.  It’s a great camera. If you’re looking for something that is more impressive, spring for an entry-level interchangeable lens camera that will cost you about $500 like the Canon EOS Rebel T3.


Making Over Your Technology on a $1,000 Budget

As an exercise, we thought we’d try to get all these gadgets — smartphone, hotspot, laptop, tablet, camera — for under $1,000.  That seems like a reasonable figure for people who want to make an investment in their business. Here’s how we spent our $1,000:

  • Hotspot: There’s no upfront cost for the hotspot, but we’ll end up paying about $10 a month for the service.

There you go!  All in for $1,000, and I have a great phone, a tablet, a new laptop, and a terrific camera that takes wide-angle photos and has a nice sensor.  I’m fully equipped, ready for the new market.

Think of it this way.  All the devices we discussed will last you at least two years.  That’s 24 months.  So think of it as leasing a full array of great equipment you need for your real estate business for about $50 a month.  $50 a month times 24 months is about $1,000.  And at the end of the two years, those items will still hold some residual value.

Invest in your business. Invest in the tools that you need to run your business. That’s how you become successful.


We hope this is helpful. If you have comments, such as some additional recommendations for equipment that you think has helped you in your business, feel free to post it.  And if you have any questions, post those as well and we’ll do our best to address them.